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How Migration Deals Lead to Refugee Commodification

The trend toward ‘compacts’ encourages overburdened host states to treat refugee populations as sources of economic rent, with serious implications for refugee protection, writes researcher Gerasimos Tsourapas.

Written by Gerasimos Tsourapas Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Syrian refugees work in a Syrian-owned clothing factory on May 17, 2016, in Gaziantep, Turkey.

Ethiopia’s 2019 “Jobs Compact” – a $500-million program that aims to create 100,000 jobs for Ethiopians and refugees – has been hailed as the latest example of the international community providing economic support to states most severely affected by forced migration. In the past few years, similar “migration deals” have been negotiated with Jordan and Lebanon. Most famously, perhaps, the March 2016 E.U.–Turkey “deal” stopped the flow of irregular migration into Europe, in return for €6 billion ($6.8 billion) in economic relief. There have been recent calls for a formal Turkish Compact, as well.

Conceived as a novel model for managing forced displacement, such schemes are presented as ways to transform a broken refugee system by supporting the integration of displaced persons into the host state job market. The $1.7 billion Jordan Compact, for example, aimed to “turn the Syrian refugee crisis into a development opportunity.” This type of “win-win” arrangement has been characterized as “one of the most important economic experiments in the world today.” Similarly, the World Bank promised to “transform the [Syrian refugee] crisis into new opportunities” for Lebanon. It put forth similar statements with regard to the Ethiopian Jobs Compact.

Western states appear less receptive to hosting refugee populations and prefer to outsource the management of forced displacement to the global south. So why should the proliferation of migration deals be a cause for concern? To put it simply, such arrangements encourage the treatment of refugees as commodities. They empower host states to view displaced populations as a resource – or, more aptly, a source of economic “rent.”

In political economy, rent refers to excess payments when there is no cost of production. A number of states in the Middle East are considered “rentier states” as they derive a substantial portion of their national revenues from foreign sources in the form of rent, namely via the sale of oil. Migration deals transform forced displacement populations into a novel source of rent. Provision of economic incentives to host states of first asylum in exchange for their continuing to host refugees sets the stage for the creation of “refugee rentier states.”

Provision of economic incentives to host states of first asylum in exchange for their continuing to host refugees sets the stage for the creation of “refugee rentier states.”

My research into the politics of the Syrian refugee crisis focuses on host states’ responses to migration deals, and identifies a rising trend in their attempts to leverage their position for material gain. Governments are beginning to employ refugees in their foreign policy agenda, particularly in their negotiations with industrialized states of the global north. A language of shared responsibility and human rights protection is disappearing beneath new discourses about economic opportunities, refugees’ self-reliance and their integration into host countries’ development plans.

What are the implications of adopting an instrumentalist, development-centered strategy? Even if we set aside the (salient) moral implications of such policymaking, three notable issues are apparent.

First, given that this form of economic aid is based, by definition, on a host state’s treatment of its refugee population, migration deals create new ways for developing countries to become dependent on international donors. International aid comes with conditions: In Jordan, for instance, the compact expected policymakers to provide 200,000 employment opportunities for Syrian refugees. By mid-2017, due to slow economic growth, only 60,000 work permits had been issued. The growing tension between Jordan and the international donors led the Jordanian Ministry of Labor to give out multiple work permits to each Syrian, in order for it to appear as if more permits had been granted. At the same time, authorities began harassing, imprisoning and deporting low-skilled Egyptian migrants – many of whom live in precarious conditions and have been used as political leverage in the past – in the ongoing scramble to secure employment for Syrian refugees at the Egyptians’ expense. Despite Western donors’ ambition to balance the needs of refugees and host communities, conditionality terms provide significant challenges.

Second, the commodification of refugee populations skews host-state policies with a view to attracting external funding. A few months back, news broke of Uganda inflating refugee numbers by creating fake names in refugee settlements and defrauding millions of dollars in aid. In Jordan, the decision to construct refugee camps was intended to make the Syrian displaced population visible to potential international donors. Narratives of imminent state collapse are also aimed at lending urgency to host states’ international appeals for economic aid. ‘‘Unemployment is skyrocketing. Our health sector is saturated. Our schools are really going through difficult times. It’s extremely, extremely difficult. And Jordanians … just have had it up to here. I mean, we just can’t take it anymore,” Jordan’s King Abdullah stated in 2016. Lebanese officials have expressed similar sentiments. While each country faces challenges, they also feel the need to exaggerate in order to extract more money from donors. The effects of such alarmist narratives on societal attitudes toward refugees is significant, with the risk of promoting racist reactions.

At its most extreme, refugee commodification allows host states to engage in coercive migration diplomacy: “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and we can put the refugees on buses,” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared to European Council president Donald Tusk in 2016. “So how will you deal with refugees if you don’t get a deal? Kill the refugees?”

Finally, beyond foreign policy, the proliferation of migration deals appears to encourage refugee rent-seeking behavior domestically, as local actors also seek to benefit. In January 2015, Lebanon declared that all Syrian refugees over 15 years of age were expected to pay a $200 annual renewal fee to the Lebanese state – an exorbitant amount given that 70 percent of Syrian refugees in the country fall below the poverty line. Those who had not registered with UNHCR were required to secure the “sponsorship” of a Lebanese national, encouraging a process of exploitation. “Sponsors are making a business out of it,” one refugee reported. “They sell sponsorships for up to $1,000 a person. Potential sponsors wait on the Syrian border or at the airport to sell sponsorships to new arrivals.”

Identifying the perils of refugee commodification is not a moral condemnation of host states across the global south, particularly given the disproportionate share of refugees they are tasked with managing. Rather, this is a warning to Western policymakers who view “migration deals” as a panacea to refugee burden-sharing problems. Serious thought should be given to the repercussions for international cooperation on refugee protection – particularly in the current mindset of encouraging refugee rent-seeking behavior.

The emergence of refugee rentier states appears to be less about the future of multilateral cooperation than proof of the precarious state of global migration governance. As one Jordanian policymaker lamented over Jordan’s management of the Syrian refugee crisis, “We should have blackmailed the E.U. like Turkey did.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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